Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright

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After NT Wright completed his seminal work on the resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of the Son of God he planned on writing a follow-up on the crucifixion of Christ (what would eventually be The Day the Revolution Began). As he prepared to write that book, tragedy struck as 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew them into civilian targets on the Eastern seaboard of the US. Wright realized he needed to write a book on the problem of evil before he dealt with the cross. This thin (less than 170 page) volume Evil and the Justice of God is Wright’s contribution on the subject of evil and God.

Wright’s book is neither primarily a pastoral nor a philosophical reflection on the problem of evil. It deals with the problem primarily from a cultural and biblical perspective. Wright speaks with such ease, you feel as though you’re sitting with a cup of tea in hand in his living room. This both warmly draws the reader in, but can at times give one the sense that the material is ad hoc and is not as well thought out as one would hope.

The encroachment of evil in the contemporary world has been a significant problem, and yet, Wright notes, it “seems to have taken many people, not least politicians and the media, by surprise.” This is because our cultural philosophy has no answer for evil. Wright identifies that cultural philosophy in one word: progress. What is new, no, what is next holds the highest value (look no further than our cultural worship of youth).

And yet, we should have learned that progress provided no real answers for our hardest questions. How, in light of Auschwitz, could we still be anchored by a philosophical mooring as weak as progress? Our answer has been to project evil outward: to the other, to society, to politics. But a culture of blame is no real solution.

Enter postmodernity, where cynicism reigns: “nothing will get better and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But that is no solution. Worse still, “postmodernity allows for no redemption. There is no way out, no chance of repentance and restoration, no way back to the solid ground of truth from the quicksands of deconstruction.”

Modernism did away with Satan and evil, but the burden of proof lies on the modernist to defend their tenuous construal of reality.

What does the God of the Bible do about evil? Wright takes us on a biblical tour to answer that question. The story of evil, according to the Bible, is not a story of evil “out there” but rather evil that runs through our own hearts. For reasons we are not given full access to, the Creator God allows evil to remain in this world. God’s justice is not justice that comes for the evil out there, but to deal with the evil in us.

The book of Job, the book most often looked to regarding the problem of evil is a book that gives us surprisingly few answers. We are merely assured that evil exists, God is sovereign, and that his ways are beyond our comprehension.

But the biblical answer doesn’t end by merely pointing us to God’s sovereignty. In the book of Isaiah, we are told that God will deal with the problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness and sin by a servant who will take Israel’s fate on himself. Daniel tells us of a “Son of Man” who will also rescue.

In short, the Old Testament tells us first that the problem of evil begins in our hearts, second that God is sovereign and there is no tidy philosophical answer for it, and third, that God will resolve the problem of evil through his own intervention.

The New Testament shares the story of a God who does not just stand back from evil, but who intervenes. And yet his intervention isn’t as we might expect. Jesus heals those broken by evil, he seeks out sinners, he confronts those who believe they are righteous.

He doesn’t destroy death through force, he destroys evil by taking on himself the weight of sin and being destroyed by it. The cross, the place where it appeared as though evil had won, is actually the place where evil was destroyed: “The cross becomes the sign that pagan empire, symbolized in the might and power of sheer brutal force, has been decisively challenged by a different power, the power of love, the power that shall win the day."

The cross is typically understood in one of three ways: either Christ is the humble and righteous example, showing us how to live, the atoning sacrifice, a substitute for our win, or the conquering victor, defeating Satan and evil. Wright himself often pushes toward the third understanding. However, in this volume, Wright affirms all three as important ways to understand Christ’s work on the cross.

The thread between all three of these is this: evil is not out there, it is in us. Wright says, ‘the problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me.” The cross defeats evil, not because it defeats something out there, but because it defeats the grip of evil and death in our own hearts.

What do we do with this? What ought we do in light of a Savior who has given himself up to evil on the cross that evil might be defeated in our own hearts? Wright calls us to prayer, to holiness, and to political engagement (Wright actually breaks this final one into three parts: political engagement, transformation of penal codes, and international engagement).

A life of prayer is a life crying out to God to bring his righteousness and to overturn evil. A life of holiness is a life of living out the forgiveness of God. Just as God’s justice is not vengeance, but rather swallows up offense, so we too are called to costly forgiveness. Unfortunately in the midst of this excellent chapter, Wright muddies the waters with a call to begin by “forgiving ourselves.” I’m not quite sure why Wright allowed this non-biblical conception of forgiving oneself to needle its way into his otherwise excellent chapter. Hopefully readers will be able to re-read this call in more biblical terms: to accept the forgiveness Christ has offered us and allow that to form our identity and heart.

The final three calls to political engagement are worth greater exploration than Wright gives them, but they certainly merit consideration.

Throughout, NT Wright reminds us that, “'the problem of evil' is not something we will 'solve' in the present world, and that our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God's new world to birth on the basis of Jesus' death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of 'the present evil age.'" Evil and the Justice of God is a worthy starting point for engaging the questions our culture has about evil through the lens of a biblical story of redemption.

 

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash